Tag Archives: congregate

Autism Celebrations, Acceptance, and Community Living

‘There are new rules and guidelines for Home and Community Based Services being drafted that will dictate what type of living and working situations Medicaid dollars will fund for people with disabilities. There is language in the new rules and guidelines that is a threat to the farmstead model. There are disability advocates who believe that farms are by their very nature isolating and that people with disabilities living on a farm will be tantamount to living in an institution…..we at AACORN Farm disagree!’ (Catherine Pinto, founder).   And we at Juniper Hill Farms disagree as well!!

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50 candles on Pete’s birthday cake today!  Yellow cake with buttercream frosting with a banana cream pie on the side, as per Pete’s request that he made LAST week at Andy’s birthday celebration.  25 or so of Pete’s closest friends sang Happy Birthday and cheered as all 50 candles were blown out.  Presents included cans of crab, sardines and oysters as well as doggie treats for Shauna and Pete’s favorite Lemon Ginger Tea.  After cake, we pulled names out of a basket to see who our $5 Secret Santa will be for next week’s holiday party…. And then? Our bellies full of cake and homemade macaroni and cheese, we made the weekly mass exodus off of Juniper Hill for Winter Wednesdays afternoon bowling.

There have been birthdays almost every week since Jose kicked off the birthday season on September 20th… and now after the holidays in January we will have Karen, Patrick, Rebecca, John, and Aggie for 5 birthday weeks in a row.  We’re thankful that we are a community of mostly winter birthdays, or we would never get summer sunflowers planted!

lp.aspxCelebrations happen naturally here on the Hill. There is a momentum that can
not be avoided, an unspoken ‘rule’ … that HERE is where we celebrate.  Here in the loud, crowded, somewhat worn and disheveled dining/family room right off of the always chaotic Juniper Hill kitchen.  A poster on the wall quotes Emma from Emma’s Hope Book …. ‘Helpful Thoughts of Calming Kindness’… wise, poetic words reminding us all to STAY CALM. Through weekly meltdowns, drama, and anxiety… it all comes together somehow. It doesn’t exactly ‘STAY’ together… ever… but it does ‘come together’ each week,  and by the following week everyone is ready to do it again.

Four years ago … in the beginning…… the question ‘How does an adult with a disability celebrate holidays and birthdays once they are living independently in the community?‘ was not considered.  The first six months involved setting up services and support people , finances, pots and pans and furniture. Logistics.

Then all of a sudden, birthdays happened.  And holidays.

But actually … mostly nothing happened.

NOW WHAT?  This was not part of the plan! Families would call and make the effort, but it was often difficult to be available on an actual birthday.  Staff was gone on holidays and there was no guarantee that a birthday would fall on the same day as scheduled staff. And wasn’t I supposed to be ‘just the landlord’?  Who was going to make this happen? And whose responsibility was it to help the other guys acknowledge their housemate’s birthday?

Just HOW important was this, to make sure that celebrations happen for each person? It was glaringly obvious… celebrations were at the top of everyone’s list here. The idea of taking on that responsibility was overwhelming.

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How do neurotypical adults celebrate?  They call up friends, or friends call them. They’ve stayed in touch with friends from high school or college. They have gotten to know their neighbors socially, or their co-workers, or their church. They make plans.  They initiate.  They drive themselves home for Thanksgiving. There is an entire multi-generational community that sustains itself without too much effort.

But these guys, and many other independent adults with a disability… don’t.  They don’t initiate.  They don’t drive. They have rarely stayed in touch with school friends. It is difficult to pursue social relationships on their own, whether in the neighborhood or at the workplace. Their aging parents do their best to pick them up for family events and drive them back home again afterwards.  Sisters and brothers stay involved the best they can, but they are raising families of their own.

And for many many people, living independently in the community with a disability… they spend these special occasions alone.

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So why does this work here at the farm?

What we really DO have here is  a community… after 4 years of working together, 4 years of eating together, 4 years of living together or just being together for a few hours each week. That’s all it took.  Just real life…  and familiarity, true friendship and trust.

We have a community… and they want to CELEBRATE!

So we do, together.  ALL. THE. TIME.

Something else happened today, another incident that embodies the importance of the relationships that exist within the Juniper Hill community.

One of the guys kind of ruined the bowling event today, for most everyone there. It involved LOUD melting down, blaming and bullying of others.  Upon returning to the Hill, he disappeared for three hours.  Around the farm, into the woods, or up in the other house at the top of the hill…. he went somewhere (because on a farm, there is space. There is room to be alone, to have your quiet space, to reflect without interruption.  Another bonus of country life.)… The rest of us feasted on some pretty amazing leftovers for dinner, put up Christmas lights, and sang Christmas carols with YouTube videos.  Actually, I had absolutely nothing to do with the singing part, that was INITIATED (yes, they initiate now) by the others.

***(just a side note about having the word ‘bully’ in quotation marks.  This guy, this quotation marked ‘bully for an hour’ is the kindest, gentlest, most compassionate and generous guy you will ever meet.  But not during a meltdown. No one is. That’s why it is called a meltdown).

They were rocking the Christmas Spirit here… when the afternoon melt down **’bully’ returned.  And here’s how it all transpired….

No judgement.  No complaints.  No mention of the afternoon meltdown.  It was over, after all.

Instead, there was a pretty amazing welcoming reception because the leftovers that were the most coveted had been cooked by the ‘bully’ the day before.  Everyone raved about the ‘accidental chicken stew’ (he had intended to make soup!).  Then they served up leftover birthday cake, found enough space on the couches for everyone PLUS the dog… and watched three Christmas movies in a row.

It wasn’t that he hadn’t been wrong.  It wasn’t that it hadn’t been a big deal at the time it happened.  Feelings had been hurt, people had been made to feel uncomfortable.  Tomorrow, he’ll probably talk about it and think of some ways to possibly avoid it next time.

EVERYBODY here does this, or something like it.  There is such comfort in this knowledge. They all have their stuff (me too!) . We have all needed to be forgiven and accepted.  Regularly, actually. And everyone works hard every day to keep it together. Everyone is doing the best they can, and most of the time we all understand that…. three hours later.

We do community AND forgiveness, AND acceptance…. really really well here.

Dear Center for Medicaid/Medicare Services… Please don’t take this away from us, just because we live on a farm and not in what is considered a traditional ‘community’ setting.  Don’t change this life we have built here, just because most of the people here have autism and you think that we should be living closer to more non-autistic people.  This IS a community setting, and we do ‘community’ better than most anybody.

Please…

Rethink ‘Community’.

Opening Day of Winter Wednesday Bowling 3 weeks ago!

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Autism and agricultural communities: a reason for keeping it small

So much talk this week about agricultural communities and autism… the autism blogs and listservs are buzzing about the  FRED conference that just happened in California (Farms and Ranches Enabling people with Disabilities).  There has been an overwhelming response to the conference nationwide.  It is so inspiring to see some of these long-term communities continue to grow and succeed… check out these agricultural communities of adults with autism.  Families are talking about working together with others to create their own farm for their family members.  Again and again, the talk ends up focusing on the lack of funding, the lack of support for projects like these from the very organizations that should be helping.

For those of us whose lives are affected by autism, we ‘get’ why the farmstead model is such a good option when thinking about a life of independence for many adults on the spectrum.  Tranquility.  SPACE.  Animals.  Nature.  SPACE.  The freedom to be who you are … free to hoot, jump, pace, flap, stim, and talk talk talk …. without judgement.  The freedom to CHOOSE when and how you want to interact with others.  Life on a farm does not have to be isolating, there can be many opportunities for socializing with very little effort.  But having that CHOICE to be alone when there is a need to recharge without interaction with others… that choice is priceless for many with autism.

But since the 1970’s, the movement has been towards non-congregate living for people with disabilities.  It became the accepted belief that a life mainstreamed into society was best… that the ‘least restrictive’ environment was an environment where the individual with a disability was part of a community that consisted of mainly non-disabled individuals. The pendulum had swung all the way over to that other side, and now for many years the government and other funding streams have not wanted to consider new ‘congregate’ settings (settings where non-related people live together)  as viable options for independent living.

My own personal (and very controversial) belief is that this has been extremely over-simplified… after 35 plus years working in the disability field and 15  years in housing…. I have seen many many desperately lonely people living in the ‘community’ with few friends or connections and whose families have long since let them go.  On the other hand, some of the happiest people with disabilities that I have met either live or work in fairly large congregate settings with their best friends. It really depends on the specific nature of the ‘community’ or the ‘congregate setting’, and the quality of the support people in each. It is an oversimplification to call one situation ‘good’ and the other ‘bad’.

The guys at Juniper Hill are very attached to one another, yet also very different from each other;  they share only limited interests.  And they miss each other whenever they are apart. They are also attached to the 10 or so people who come regularly to visit or help out on the farm.  They all like each other because they are wonderfully kind, interesting people, not because they are autistic.  What right do we have, as a society, to tell them that they can’t live together just because they share a diagnosis?

courtesy of Handi-crafters

At any rate, it has become evident that creating an independent living situation with as little assistance from the government as possible may be the most practical and sustainable path for the majority of families right now.  With six guys living in close proximity here on the Hill, it borders on ‘congregate living’ in some eyes, and chances are we would have to argue this point if asking for government support for the project.  Our original plan here on Juniper Hill….. to create a working farm that would provide employment and a meaningful day for a number of individuals…. has now evolved into a simple independent living situation where the people living here just  rent their home and pay most of their bills with their social security checks.  They are learning to work on a farm, and this work will at least provide them with their spending money, and hopefully more, eventually.  It is a replicable model for many families…. and that was our goal.

We haven’t done any fundraising (yet) and the farm is not a licensed facility.  However, these guys are lucky in that they do have some waiver funding that provides the support people that come in at an average of 15 hours a week for each guy. It’s not very much but it gets the shopping, laundry, cooking and cleaning done and leaves time for volunteer jobs and even some leisurely trips to the nearby University town and weekly stops at the local library. A couple of times a month, the  AALIVE organization provides some amazing fun trips. And the guy’s social circle is continually growing, with friends dropping by to help out on the farm, just because they like being here. We recently registered as a host farm with  WWOOF, an organization that links volunteers to working opportunities on farms. We see this as an excellent way to provide some of the  supports for individuals who lack funding, while at the same time providing a valuable and enriching experience for volunteers. In just two weeks, we already have a local WWOOF volunteer coming weekly, and three more scheduled for long-term stays here.

So we think that we will just stay this size…. there is still so much room for growth in other ways, and that is enough.  And we are really looking forward to sharing ideas and guiding other families through this process.  Life is Good… here on the Hill!